Split Lip Rayfield – The grass is burning
Split Lip Rayfield is deservedly known as an amazing live band. Four regular-looking guys trickle onto the stage, grab all the acoustic instruments a bluegrass band would use — except for Jeff Eaton’s bizarre-looking gas tank bass — and suddenly create a noise unlike anyone.
“Our live show is what’s gotten us where we are,” says guitarist Kirk Rundstrom. “It’s fast-paced — 30 songs crammed into an hour-and-a-half time slot. I’ll break seven strings a night. Jeff will be bleeding at the end of a show. If it doesn’t hurt, we didn’t do our job.”
For Eaton, the pain is real; even with duct tape, calluses and other protection, his Ford-built, weed-eater string bass tears him up. “I always end up playing it way rougher when we start playing live,” he says, laughing.
The band formed in Wichita, Kansas, evolving from the amplified Scroat Belly, but banjoist Eric Mardis now lives in Lawrence, and Rundstrom recently left what he describes as the “good state” and followed his wife’s muse to Virginia.
In fact, the band’s new Bloodshot disc, Never Make It Home (their third for the label), kicks off with “Moving To Virginia”, written by the band’s mandolin player, Wayne Gottstine. “I made it up as a joke one day, and funny enough, it’s one of the best on the record,” he says. Even as a joke, that song characterizes a more personal approach from a band that’s well-known not just for murder ballads, but serial murder ballads.
“The first two albums are pretty much G-C-D burners,” says Rundstrom, “and with this album the songs are more mature, more complicated. I think everybody was pushing everybody else on this one.” Songs such as Rundstrom’s “Record Shop”, with its cryptic references to either touring or some another dangerous vagabond existence, and Gottstine’s “Never Make It Home”, told from the perspective of a murderer on the run and driven by Mardis’ strummed banjo, reveal road hazards as a staple of the band’s life.
“That particular one I wrote when we were on the road, and we had been gone for damn near a month,” Gottstine says. “We were in Oregon, and I had a broken tooth…that was long, painful trip. Ice bags and Vicodin.”
Gottstine’s “Used to Call Me Baby”, easily the most mournful song on the record, includes nods to his brother Phil coming over and playing Donkey Kong all day. Mardis sings the autobiographical “Kiss Of Death”, in which he carefully documents his lousy luck with a long list of automobiles.
Gottstine cops to a few of the band’s “bluegrass tendencies” but agrees with Rundstrom, who asserts, “I don’t think we’re a bluegrass band. I know a bunch of really good bluegrass bands. We don’t fit in that category. We’re not traditional….We’re using bluegrass instruments, but if you put amplifiers and drums behind us, you’ve got a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Their itinerary ranges in both directions. “We have one of the biggest followings at the Winfield Bluegrass Festival, but the festival itself won’t allow us to play on the main stages,” Rundstrom says. “On the road, we’ll play with the most hardcore punk band, and have their audience, when they first see us, say ‘Great, an acoustic band.’ At the end of the night, that band will do anything they can to play with us again.”
Gottstine explains it this way: “I don’t grimace if we’re booked at a heavy metal bar, and it doesn’t scare me to walk into a country bar, either. I think we’re mostly just fun.”